So, here I was about to venture to the Sheffield Doc/Fest for my first time and its 15th! Expectations high and bags packed I hit the M1 and head north to Yorkshire to meet, greet and feast on the vast array of films, talks, pitches and masterclasses of the documentary world.
Having checked into my room I stroll through the city of steel pick up my pass and sustainable jute bag containing information and guide and start to undertake my opening experience, plugging for the DFG Newcomers Day 4: The Current TV Pitch.
Here 6 filmmakers are thrown to the lions, ok well to a panel consisting of Emily Renshaw-Smith- (Director of VC2 (Viewer Created Content) at Current TV) Lina Prestwood (Creative Executive at Current TV), Aysha Rafaele (Commissioner/Editor of First Cut) and chaired by Andy Glynne (Chief Executive of Mosaic Films and director of the One World Broadcasting Trust).
So with a scary timed 5 minutes to stand before the panel and us the audience, each filmmaker boldly tried to sell their idea in the hope of being commissioned by Current TV. Some used props, some body language, but in the end one pitch stood proudly above the rest in its originality, clarity, story and access. A film told via the letters from two men who through circumstances have found themselves locked away in prison for selling drugs. With the filmmaker wisely choosing to illustrate his pitch with snippets from the letters he has received from his friends the panel and watching crowd all nodded in agreement with its deserved victory. As for the 5 runners-up, a Flip camera and a fragile grin saying ‘I did it!’ was their prize for intrepidly spouting their creative thoughts in such a tough arena.
With my Doc/Fest duck broken I moved swiftly to the showroom to grab a beer and read my guide to work out just how the hell I was going to see all I wanted to see!
The festival runs for 5 jam-packed days from 9.30 to past the witching hour. I quickly realised that there were gems I was going to simply have to miss. Bearing this in mind I chose to go to more of the talks and masterclasses and wait for the wonderful eclectic selection of films to be screened at further festivals, cinemas, TV and DVD buys! This way I could hopefully learn what the future held for the medium of documentary I so dearly love as well see and listen to whom shaped this forthcoming form for TV, cinema and cross-platform world we now share.
On my way to pick up some tickets for a film or two I run into some filmmakers and keen doc goers and end up debating about whether the DIY avalanche of filmmaking can create better films. Our conclusions varied and I missed the films but I was already beginning to understand the appeal of jumping into this vast yet intimate hubbub by the sheer invigorating nature of the beast and utter love of all that is documentary.
So to the schmoozing and late night drinks – well not as I had feared in the sense that networking never being one of my fortes was more akin to smiley inebriated stimulating chin wag on film. It’s not everyday I could yabber away heart content to fellow filmmakers, producers, composers and executives whilst vying for position at the hotel bar that was being mobbed by the delegates on mass, keenly distributing a business card here and there.
Friday morning and up and out to, What’s Happening in the US Documentary Television Market.
With the majority of the festivals talks and masterclasses seemingly aimed at these shores or Europe I was intrigued to see what our cousins across the pond were doing with the doc vehicle. Could I break the cross Atlantic doors down and how to broach them in the first place?
The panel led by New York-based consultant for U.S. networks, Peter Hamilton discussed trends and analysed the factual programming of the networks: Discovery, National Geographic, A&E, Travel Channel and KETC-TV all of whom had representatives on the panel.
A thoroughly absorbing debate, but one in which I was left feeling as though unless you had already built up a relation and a successful one at that with one of the aforementioned organsiations it would be extremely hard to break into the U.S market as a European outsider even with a proven track record. The other thing that was of course on the minds of this panel and many others was the recent downturn in the global economy and the obvious effect this has and will have on the documentary. With The Ice Road Truckers being the number 1 rated doc series within the American ratings the reality TV doc has not and will not diminish, but what of the stand alone features? Suffice to say the so-called blue chip strands or one offs are also in decline due simply to the sheer cost of making such a film/series.
Perhaps the cross platform approach really is the future after all.
With time for a caffeine injection and a snack at one of the cafes on sight I head back for my next date, Commissioning Panel: Specialist Factual. I sit attentively as the commissioning editors of: BBC – Mark Bell (Specialist Factual, Independents), CH 4 – Aaqil Ahmed (Religion and Multicultural), David Glover (Commissioning Editor, Specialist Factual), CH FIVE – Sue Davidson (Factual) & Discovery – Dan Korn (Vice President and Head of Factual) sit and discuss what type of programming they are looking for and if the curse of celebrity has even wedged its ugly toe into docs too.
To answer the last question first – it would seem so, as more and more docs are being fronted by a star, a celebrity and where once trod experts in the field associated to the topic, the ratings are key be that in cinema or TV. I am not taking it away from people like Leonardo Dicaprio or his kin, I’m sure their cause is just and no doubt any executive is going to want a good looking actor fronting his or her film not only to gain the numbers but to…nope its to gain the numbers! I mean what else can it be…so with this in mind I sincerely doubt that your going to see ‘Kat Slater’ now of Bruce’s dance cast off fame (sorry forgot her name!) fronting a wildlife excursion in the Haiti for Discovery, but you heard it here first, don’t be surprised to see her reporting live from the in-depth investigation into fake market goods in the good old East End exclusive to BBC 3 ! OK ok so perhaps a little cynical I listened to the panel controlled well more like cajoled by Ruth Pitt an Executive Producer in her own right and no doubt wanting as much knowledge as myself into which way to turn next. Now you do have to wonder whether when they state their desires and needs for the next idea if this already is running to script or whether actual risk takes and exciting new ideas and forms of the medium will actually be commissioned. I must admit they all seemed honest in the approach and outlook yet only Aaquil truly seemed to inspire me with his bold approach.
What do I know though I’m just a wee virgin of this Doc world – spread my wings and I may be back here in a few years defending my not so groundbreaking fly on the wall doc about pensioners and their right to sit where they choose (oi! That’s mine CH FIVE! – kidding…..you can have it).
I may have taken on too much talk and before my brain was about to explode what better and less bitter way reach equilibrium than by watching a couple of Danish docs.
First up 12 Notes Down directed by Andreas Koefed tells the wonderful story of Jorgis a choir boy for the Copenhagen Royal Chapel Choir whose voice is about to break taking a step closer towards adulthood.
I managed to speak with Andreas and Editor Jacob Schulsinger and was fascinated to learn that Andreas himself had once been a choirboy who had to endure this painful step too. This insight to the theme and main character’s doubts are subtlety dealt with as the camera intimately follows Jorgis at home and at school. The film never asks questions directly to its characters, and we simply are allowed to follow a brief journey climaxing in Jorgis’s final concert which in typical Danish fashion (I assume) is dealt with in a matter of fact manner by the choir’s conductor, fellow members and Jorgis himself.
The choice and luck of finding such a filmic lead in Jorgis truly helps, yet the understatement and occasional cinematographic invention assists in making this a very good film.
The film made at The National Film School of Denmark runs for less than half an hour, but rewardingly conveys a passage of time in a teenager’s life on a subject that I had no knowledge of but in which I was left touched and lifted.
So to the second part of this Danish double bill and to the feature length film, Everything Is Relative directed by Mikala Krogh, this is an ambitious experimental documentary, filmed in places as diverse as Thailand, Mozambique, Japan, U.S. Dubai and Denmark. With intertitles working as chapters; “Love” – “Loss” “Happiness” – “Illness” – “Time” and “Light” and with no voice over the film at times can get lost in a sea of self-applause regards the imagery, but and I must stress BUT on the whole it is provocative engaging and challenging. This is a bold statement and one which looks at the world, showing that we can all deal with an array of issues and that as the title suggests, all relative to each of us and yet something we can share the world over. This non-spoon fed approach allows the audience to make their own mind up into what they are seeing and hearing – whether it’s the story of the Danish woman suffering from breast cancer or the soldier sending back video messages to his wife and daughter from war torn Iraq or a close up shot scene of a couple having sex or the midwifes in Mozambique carrying newborns by their ankles. A stylistic inventive film with the ‘Dogma 95 doctor’ Mogens Rukov casting his views in each chapter this is a must see for any true believer that film and documentary can alter your perception on the world around you as well as what a doc film can be.
Smiles on my face leaving the darkened sanctuary that is a screening, I decided more mingling and chatter was needed over a beer or two with my brethren of doclovers.
And to the ‘Grierson: Sheffield Awards Ceremony’ at City Hall Ballroom.
With my glad rags on I join the early cue to sit, drink, eat and watch as three prizes are duly handed out to smiling faced, award clutching filmmakers and their representatives. The main part of which was the Youth Jury Award where youths aged between 16-21 from around Britain were short listed in conjunction with the Grierson Trust, 4 Talent and Sheffield Doc/Fest and then given the dubious task of choosing their favorite film playing the festival. It came down to two, with the ‘Thriller in Manilla’ getting a special mention but just seemingly being pipped by Margaret Brown’s film The Order of Myths.
To bed…well after more natter, some unrepeatable at the Hall and then to another hotel bar that shall remain nameless where they very British like decided that money was of no use to their business and were more keen on keeping up the illusion that there were not 101 people trying to pretend that they had a room there demanding to be served! So with kind words a plenty and champagne and wine flowing more cards were found exchanging hands and more deals brokered or at least friends made.
To the Saturday – I was up at the crack of dawn to head to lunch, which the BBC was kindly putting on where a Denby Dale pie and a sip of Sheffield brewed ale were most welcome before heading to church….well to the chapel (I kid you not) where, ‘The BritDoc Saturday Service: …and the word was Change’ was being held asking; “Can third sector and broadcasters be bedfellows?” What do films do for brands? What is a campaign? Can charities fund films and how does the filmmaker retain editorial control?
Bearing in mind BritDocs decision to merge with Doc/Fest next year I was most interested to find out more about what Jess Search (Chief Executive Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation/ BritDoc) and the panel were about to discuss. This was an area of funding and commissioning that I feel many more filmmakers would do well to learn about as the huge array of subjects that one can tackle as well as the positive impact that one can have would certainly lend itself of great interest to many (moral) filmmakers (I have heard they still exist, probably in the wild), not to mention the fact that the chance of actually making a film with next to nothing or no interference filmwise by a channel could appeal hugely.
The seating may have been uncomfortable, but the discourse was my favourite that I had attended during the festival with Tom Ziessen from the Wellcome Trust and Robert West of Working Films being of great worth and informative in particular.
There really seemed to be a change on the cards and a charge for new films and filmmakers to deal with and explore new fields that can help or shed light on difficult subjects and remote areas in science and geography and beyond… this was extremely inspirational for myself as a filmmaker on the lower echelons as that is what I feel the essence of docs are about – to find sense of the world around and if the side effect of that is more than to just observe and document but to effect positive change then I’m in!
A slow wander back to the showroom with verve in my step with the urge to dream big I spotted the films, Dreznica and FLicKeR.
In Dreznica, a short experimental film directed by Brazilian film-maker Anna Azevedo you get a lyrical journey through the imagery and experiences of blind people relived via dreams and thoughts in a beautiful and cherished piece of film making.
Leading me onto FlicKeR directed by Nick Sheehan. The film is an insight into the mind of Brion Gysin, the poet and artist and close friend of William Burroughs, a man who believed art could revolutionize human consciousness. With archive footage and contributions from an impressive carnival of counter cultural faces from William Burroughs, Lee Ronaldo, Marianne Faithful to Iggy Pop, DJ Spooky, Kenneth Anger and more.
Gysin’s interest in art, consciousness and a drug-free high led him to develop the Dream Machine; a rotating cylinder with a bulb inside. The cylinder has patterned holes that let light flicker outwards and across the eyelid at a rate that approximates the frequency of alpha waves in the brain. People who try the Dream Machine experience visions, hallucinations and even seizures.
Based on the book Chapel of Extreme Experience by John Geiger the film weaves talking heads alongside the making of a dream machine where upon the famous and infamous faces re-experience the wonders of the machine culminating in a final scene where Iggy uses it as part of his stage show.
What is an appealing topic, especially with the character Brion Gysin, I left the cinema with the desire to make a dream machine and more knowledge of him but the film soon drifted from my mind much like a dream you cant quite catch – that in itself may be a good enough reason to go check it out of course.
So Saturday night and what’s a delegate of a documentary film festival to do apart form head to a Scottish Ceilidh and Roller Disco party.
Here with a haggis and a dram of whiskey to blunt the taste buds much revelry was had, more friends made and sore heads awaited.
To the day of rest, well not for us folks! Up at off to see ‘Man on Wire’ a film that has made the rounds and one, which I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on, suffice to say …c’est bonne!
The rest of my time at Doc/Fest was chatting with filmmakers, seeing what they liked, what they felt about the festival, their highlights and lowlights.
With a weary body I dragged my bags from my room to my car and headed South.
This was my first large scale documentary festival and it certainly wont be my final one – my lasting memory and thought was that, yes it was a place for industry where newcomers and older heads could come and make deals, discuss new ideas and future plans within the field, BUT it was also a place where as a doclover I could feel at one and realise that as hard a time I would have to break further into this industry, the inspiration and desire to do so had just grown ten fold.
If you are thinking of going next time – please do and I will buy you a beer to celebrate the fact that you’ve broken your Sheffield Doc/Fest duck.
Craig Rook is a filmmaker, photographer and writer.